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date: 21 November 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Adaptation scholars frequently gesture toward a vague history of adaptation, pointing out that the repurposing of stories stretches back to the beginnings of storytelling. This essay offers a more specific history, arguing that adaptation rose as a simple abstraction in the late eighteenth century. It identifies George Colman’s Iron Chest, which adapts William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, as the first adaptation, as such. Colman’s play achieves this distinction not through adaptive innovation, but rather through the critical reaction to the play—specifically an essay by John Litchfield that functions as the first piece of fidelity criticism. Thus, the cultural concept of adaptation is a critical construction that rose with the fidelity urge. Unpacking this alternate history of both adaptation and the Romantic period reveals adaptation as a vital cultural reaction that catalyzed and shaped Romanticism’s critical shifting and redefining of notions of originality, which literary scholars subsequently used to marginalize adaptation.

Keywords: adaptation, history, romanticism, George Colman, British theater, fidelity, William Godwin

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